Katie Ribbens—Staff Writer
Puppies are cute. It is impossible not to love them. But for puppy raisers, it is their job to love them only to give them up. It is a heartbreaking moment when they part with their puppy to be trained for service work, but it is one of many facets the position entails.
Dr. Luralyn Helming, a psychology professor at Dordt University, is intimately familiar with the puppy raising process. As an animal lover, Helming once planned to become a vet—a dream dashed with the emergence of her cat allergies.
But she soon found a new outlet for her passion for animals: after her freshman year of high school, she took in a puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Jamal, a labrador retriever and golden retriever cross, lived with Helming for a year. He even went to school with her, forever dubbing Helming as “the girl with the dog.”
Like Helming, puppy raisers for Partners for Patriots, a nonprofit in Anthon, Iowa, that pairs service dogs with disabled veterans, spend about a year with their puppies. During this time, puppy raisers spend every waking (and often sleeping) moment with their dog. Puppy raisers see the potential of a life-saving apparatus for a future veteran in the wriggling bodies, wide eyes, and clumsy paws of their charges.
Puppy raisers typically receive their pups when they are eight weeks old, although sometimes an older dog will be brought in for training. The 8-week-old puppies come into their lives as a blank canvas. This is a pro: there is nothing wrong that the puppy raiser has to un-train.
However, there is a major con: the puppies know nothing. They don’t understand that they can’t potty in the house. They don’t understand that shoving noses in certain places is inappropriate. They don’t understand that toys are for biting and human hands are not.
Who teaches them these things? The puppy raisers. It is their job to take the puppy with them everywhere to expose them to anything they might encounter with their veteran someday.
Idling in front of the Dutch Mart in Orange City, Iowa is a red car. It is an ordinary enough car: small, low to the ground, lightly dusted with Iowan soil—but there is one major difference: three wagging tails are silhouetted in the back window. Attached to these tails are expressive eyes and cold noses, plus one very important accessory: each puppy comes with a “Service Dog in Training” vest. It transforms them from any other adorable puppy into a future lifesaver, a working medical device in training.
Fran Cronin is the brave individual taking on not one, not two, but three puppies for Partners for Patriots. It is a lot to take on and people tell her she is crazy. But she believes that it can be helpful to have an older puppy and a younger puppy at the same time. One of her puppies, a cream-colored labradoodle with a rose nose named Bailey, is just under a year old. She shows the younger puppies the proper way to behave, especially in respect to potty training.
“Having three isn’t much different from having one,” Cronin said.
She would spend time training regardless if she had one puppy or three. She makes sure to spend one-on-one time with each puppy in addition to the group outings. It is also critical that Cronin introduce the puppies to sudden noises or flying objects so that they won’t someday be surprised on the job.
“We’re dropping stuff all the time in my house,” Cronin said. Silverware, pans, basketballs–everything is fair game in Cronin’s household.
Cronin knows firsthand the significance of a service dog. After suffering childhood trauma and a car accident that left her with debilitating migraines, a traumatic brain injury, and PTSD, the doctors told Cronin she needed a service dog. The emotional support the dog supplied helped her get out of bed each morning. The tasks her dog is trained to do allows her to live her life again.
On the day she has to give her puppies back to Partners, Cronin drives extra slowly, drawing out every last moment with her dog. But she knows it’s for the greater good, that someone needs this dog more than her. For the special ones that really burrow into her heart, she knows she’ll shed extra tears for them. But she tells herself that it just means that someone else will be getting a really amazing dog.
However, some people don’t see it that way.
“I was called heartless for giving them up,” Cronin said. “That really hurt me.”
Helming concurred with Cronin’s experiences and recalled a very tearful goodbye with Jamal. A small part of her had hoped that he would fail in his training so that she could take him back.
“It’s really hard because you really do feel like you’re giving up part of yourself when you give them back,” Helming said.
However, when she attended Jamal’s graduation with his new handler, she likened the pride she felt unlike anything she had experienced until she had children. The puppy she spent one year raising–the puppy she poured so much of herself into–beat the odds and became a service dog.
Dogs open doors that people cannot (figuratively, not literally–although service dogs do that too). Helming said that service dogs are underutilized, and she could see Dordt students becoming a part of the training process to help these dogs succeed.
“The people who need working dogs need them to be trained in all environments and so we get all kinds of environments and exposure to all kinds of different people on a college campus,” Helming said. “It’s a good way that college students can be helping other people out with their time.”
The prospect of applying dog training principles to the psychology courses she teaches excites Helming. She expects that the dogs will also have a positive impact on the students on campus. Animals are naturally therapeutic and relaxing, the perfect remedy for a stressed college student.